The builder of a rational environment

Solutions: The founder used his business to bring people together.

James W. Rouse

Sale Of The Rouse Co.

August 21, 2004|By Stacey Hirsh | Stacey Hirsh,SUN STAFF

"Rational" was one of James W. Rouse's favorite words.

It was only rational, he felt, that neighborhoods be a place where neighbors to bump into one another on the street or in the nearby supermarket.

And it was only rational that shopping malls be for more than just shopping, that they be used for eating and wandering and gathering with friends.

He had a vision for "a more rational human environment," said his son, James W. Rouse Jr. With that vision, the senior Rouse became a pioneer in communities and shopping mall development around the country, creating Columbia as one of America's first planned communities and developing malls and waterfront marketplaces from Baltimore's Inner Harbor to Boston's Faneuil Hall.

Rouse's image graced the cover of Time magazine in 1981 beside the headline "Cities Are Fun," one of many affirmations of how his projects were breathing new life into downtowns. The company he started was sold, it was announced yesterday, for $7.2 billion to General Growth Properties Inc. of Chicago, eight years after Rouse died at age 81.

"The fundamental thing that drove my father was that businesses should make money and need a profit to survive, but the way to do that was serve human needs, provide people with things that they needed," Rouse Jr. said.

"And he believed if you did that, and did that well, you would make a profit and survive. But his eye was never focused on the bottom line; it was providing services for people."

So in Rouse's Columbia, each neighborhood was centered on an elementary school, and each of its villages - or groups of neighborhoods - was designed with a town center that included a supermarket and shopping area. There were paths for exercising and green spaces for socializing. Group mailboxes were set up to subliminally coax residents to bump into their neighbors while they checked for their letters. And Columbia's signature cul-de-sacs were seen as a way to break out of the suburban isolation of typical streets.

"It's the symbol of it as well as the physical reality of it," the younger Rouse said. "Rather than being stretched out on the street grids, you had some kind of connection to your neighbors through a circular arrangement."

And for the 1960s, the early days of the civil rights movement, Rouse had a forward-thinking idea of who your neighbors should be.

Before the federal Fair Housing Act that prohibits discrimination in selling, renting or financing homes was enacted, Rouse declared that people of any race should live wherever they wanted in Columbia.

When homebuilders or real estate agents steered blacks or whites to certain areas, Rouse would repurchase homes to make sure each street was diverse, said Joshua Olsen, author of Better Places, Better Lives: A Biography of James Rouse.

"He had to do that on more than one occasion," Olsen said, "and the reason was the builders who had bought lots to build on in Columbia weren't following the policy that Rouse had set forth."

When Maggie J. Brown moved to Columbia from Baltimore in 1970, it seemed unreal to her that Jim Rouse's vision could thrive. But she was quickly proved wrong.

Brown and her husband, both research chemists, were having trouble finding someone who would sell a house to them as a young black couple - until they started looking in Columbia. Then, when they moved in one hot day, a white woman came across the street with a pitcher of lemonade and some glasses.

It was the first time, she said, that a white person had served her a drink in a glass rather than a paper cup, which could be easily thrown away.

"I was so struck by that," said Brown, now president of the Columbia Association, which manages the town. "That told me that apparently the individuals that were moving to that town had a belief in what the developer, Jim Rouse, was touting at that time, which was an open, caring community."

Residents say the openness and diversity Rouse engendered remains today.

Robert Tennenbaum, director of real estate development for the University of Maryland in Baltimore and an architect who was one of the early planners of the city, moved to Columbia in 1967 and still lives in the same house. His cul-de-sac of eight homes includes a Muslim family; a family with a husband from Ethiopia and a wife who is a Japanese-American; and one couple in their 80s whose son, daughter-in-law and grandchildren live across the street.

Tennenbaum calls the street a "microcosm of what he have in America" and said many of the families on that cul-de-sac have children who are now adults, with professions from cardiologists to plumbers, who still get together for golf games and Fourth of July celebrations.

"From the very beginning, Columbia was very clearly marketed as an open community - that is, anyone that could buy a house or rent an apartment here was welcome, and that was quite revolutionary in those early days," Tennenbaum said.

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